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VOLUNTOURISM: WHAT IS IT AND HOW ARE WE DIFFERENT?

BY JULIETTE CAPOMOLLA

This is an important conversation that we want to have. We know that the volunteers interested in joining our programmes are conscious of the impact of their volunteering activities, and so too are we. 

But before we talk about how we avoid voluntourism, we wanted to analyse what it even is in the first place!

WHAT IS VOLUNTOURISM?

Simply put, this refers to when people travel to volunteer internationally, however in recent years this term has taken on some serious negative connotations. Many individuals across the world, especially students, travel abroad to volunteer in foreign countries to help those in need. These volunteers have good intentions, but often, their deeds do not eventuate to what they think they will.

Many programmes involve volunteers that are unskilled to practice their volunteering work at home and therefore it is unreasonable for them to do this overseas. For example, most students are not educated in construction and therefore cannot build a home in their domestic country. But, as a part of their volunteering, they are tasked to do just this. These houses can end up extremely dangerous or are left half-built when the volunteers leave.

Then there is the issue of short-term programmes. Many volunteers are only on programs that last for 2-3 weeks and unfortunately, without a proper structure and staff on the ground year round to see projects through, it is hard to see how lasting change can come from such a short amount of time.

For some volunteering programmes, the volunteers replace local employees for the duration of their trip. This takes away their livelihood, often giving it to someone less qualified and knowledgeable about the local community.

From these examples, it is easy to see how voluntourism can do more harm than good. But that doesn't mean that volunteering abroad can't make a positive, long-term impact. We do things differently at Challenges Abroad, and we wanted to share with you exactly how we're shaking up the voluntourism industry and actually making long-term change.

 

1. A PERMANENT, SKILLED IN-COUNTRY TEAM.

In each of the communities where we work, we have a permanent in-country team who live and work there year-round. Our teams are made up of community development professionals and local community members. The role of our in-country team is to set out and implement long-term development development plans in line with community needs. These are linked with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and focus on improving education, health and livelihoods. 

Having a permanent team in-country means that while our volunteers might only participate on a 2-3 week programme, they are forming part of a well thought out plan. Their work will build on the volunteers before them, and future volunteers will continue their work. Throughout this cycle, our in-country team is constantly monitoring and evaluating our programs to ensure we are making the biggest impact we can.

It also avoids our volunteers ever replacing local jobs. When our volunteer are working in our partner schools, for example, they are delivering supplementary classes that are designed to enhance the education that students are currently receiving. Our in-country team works hard with local educators to identify areas in which our volunteers could use their own knowledge and experience to fill gaps in the local curriculum. Whether this is conversational English, STEM, creative arts or health classes, our volunteers can add significant value not only to local students, but to teachers who also may not have this knowledge themselves. 

Just last year, a group of our volunteers ran girl's health workshops at our partner schools in Cambodia. They helped to dispel common myths about women's bodies and sexuality and taught the girls about personal hygiene. One important lesson was about women's periods and how to manage it so that it doesn't prevent them from going to school. Since then, two of the girls who attended these workshops have volunteered to get some more training from our in-country team to then go and spread this knowledge with more girls in their community!

2. WE DON'T WORK WITH ORPHANAGES.

A big issue with voluntourism is that it often coincides with orphanage tourism. Orphanages have become so popular with Western volunteers and tourists that they have become a profitable industry where the orphanage is paid to host volunteers, with little of this money being used to create comfortable living conditions. All too often, the mindset is that if the orphanage was clean and shiny with happy children, why would anyone want to volunteer or donate money?

The orphanage industry has grown to the extent that studies show that large proportions of orphanages house children who have at least one living parent - in many places these numbers can be as high as 98%! Parents can often be misled to give their children to these orphanages because they believe they will receive better nourishment and education than they themselves can provide, but the reality is far from this. Additionally, research has consistently demonstrated that orphanages are not a thriving environment for children to grow up in and having a stream of volunteers coming and going only ads to any instability and abandonment issues children might already have. 

At Challenges Abroad, we don't support this industry and refuse to work with any orphanages. If children are not kept in orphanages in our own society, we don't see why it would be reasonable for us to encourage this practice elsewhere. Instead, we help children and their families through long-term education, health and livelihoods programs.

3. THE UN GLOBAL GOALS FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

We are a social enterprise set up to support the development work of our charity, the FutureSense Foundation. It is the FutureSense Foundation who run our volunteer programmes overseas and ensure that our volunteers are contributing to long-term, sustainable change.

FutureSense link all of our work to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure that our efforts are forming part of a global movement to end inequality. These goals were developed to encourage sustainable development world wide and are used a our benchmark when monitoring and evaluating our programs. In an increasingly unstable environment, these goals help to overcome poverty and encourage equality in a sustainable manner.

Each of our volunteer programmes directly address one of more of the SDGs. We truly believe that by focusing on these goals and creating a community of Global Citizens dedicated to enacting change, we will see them achieved in our lifetime.

By choosing to volunteer with Challenges Abroad, you can feel comfortable knowing that you actually will make a long-term difference to disadvantaged communities. You aren't leaving things worse-off than when you arrived, nor are you encouraging corrupt institutions to continue. We understand that voluntourism can be a problem, so we are doing our best to change it. 

Ready to do your bit to make a difference? Check out our ethical volunteer programmes!